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The Rev. Damião Elias, a member of the Commission on General Conference, and interpreter Isaura Arez practice using a Bible app on a tablet. Elias, who is from Mozambique, is among nine commission members who received training from United Methodist Communications and will participate in a pilot project using the tablets. The hope is that the tools will help delegates, especially from Africa and the Philippines, in preparing for General Conference. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS

Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS

The Rev. Damião Elias, a member of the Commission on General Conference, and interpreter Isaura Arez practice using a Bible app on a tablet. Elias, who is from Mozambique, is among nine commission members who received training from United Methodist Communications and will participate in a pilot project using the tablets. The hope is that the tools will help delegates, especially from Africa and the Philippines, in preparing for General Conference. Photo by Heather Hahn, UMNS

How technology could help General Conference delegates

By Heather Hahn
Oct. 14, 2014 | LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. (UMNS)

For United Methodists from outside the United States, one of the biggest challenges of going to General Conference is simply getting ready.

Too often, delegates receive volumes of proposed legislation only days before their departure for The United Methodist Church’s top lawmaking assembly. The bulk of those volumes can make it difficult to know what to pack.

“We have to start weighing what clothes we would bring to make room for the materials … the weight of the materials takes up almost all our weight allowance,” said the Rev. Damião Elias of Mozambique through an interpreter. He has attended two General Conference sessions.

“Trying to read everything and keep it in your mind is impossible.”

You’ve heard the old line that Ginger Rogers did everything Fred Astaire did but backwards and in heels. Delegates from central conferences — church regions in Africa, Asia and Europe — do everything their U.S. counterparts do. They do their work despite language barriers, poor Internet access and far less time to study legislation that could affect the church for years to come.

The Commission on General Conference has started a pilot project that members hope will overcome some of these obstacles, including the packing conundrum.

For the next two years, nine commission members from the central conferences are testing e-tablets.

The tablets include a Bible app, Skype and the 2012 Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book. The plan is for the tablets ultimately to contain the proposed legislation months in advance of the next General Conference, which is scheduled May 10-20, 2016, in Portland, Oregon.

Commission members have agreed to personally donate or raise $8,000 to buy the tablets for General Conference delegates, particularly heads of delegations from Africa and the Philippines.

The 2012 General Conference charged the commission with exploring how technology could improve future gatherings but allotted no funds to support that work, said the Rev. L. Fitzgerald “Gere” Reist II, secretary of General Conference.

The benefits and cost of technology

The commission members are using Samsung Galaxy Tab 4 devices for the pilot project. United Methodist Communications recommended them because they work with a variety of carriers and are relatively easy to use.

Each costs about $300 with a case and SIM card to store contacts.

The tablets are not gifts but remain the property of the general church through the commission. 

The commission also is working with United Methodist Communications to develop a message board exclusively for delegates.

And, United Methodist Communications plans to set up the tablets to use a text-messaging system that does not depend on the Internet. Often, poor roads and unreliable Internet service means African delegations can’t confer with each other before the big assembly.

“We’re trying to work out a number of issues,” Reist told United Methodist News Service. “The fundamental thing is people have to have access to the technology or none of it works.”

Of the 864 delegates allotted for the 2016 General Conference, 350 delegates — nearly 42 percent — will come from outside the United States. Thirty percent will come from Africa alone.

Providing all central conference delegates in 2016 with tablets would cost about $105,000, Reist said.

Commission member Bill Haden of the Oregon-Idaho Conference suggested the commission look for ways to purchase tablets for all the central conference delegates who need them.

“In the grand scheme of things, $100,000 is both a great deal of money and not that much if you take it in the context that we will spend in this quadrennium the better part of $12 million to put together General Conference,” Haden said. He is the chair of the 2016 General Conference host committee.

Reist said he already is in conversations with various general church agencies to find denominational funding for more tablets.

What the tablets can do

On Oct. 13, United Methodist Communications staff trained the commission members to use the devices. The members learn how to search, highlight passages, look up words and take notes on documents. They also learned how to build contact lists and send group messages.

In previous years, the Advance Daily Christian Advocate — the volumes that include proposed legislation — was available digitally in PDF. But users can’t make notes on PDFs and depending on their device, the documents can be difficult to read and search.

In 2016, the Advance Daily Christian Advocate will be available in the EPUB (electronic publication) format, which allows copious digital note taking for anyone with a tablet.

The United Methodist Publishing House does provide copies of proposed legislation at General Conference. But Reist noted that people often want to bring the copies they have already heavily annotated.

Commission members participating in the pilot project are enthusiastic about the tablets’ potential to help them deliberate on legislation and lighten their suitcases.

“This will help facilitate our communication and it will facilitate documentations,” Elias of Mozambique said through an interpreter. “With the training I received here, I am going to share that with delegates.”

Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org